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‘It Was All a Dream’ Shows the Early Days of Hip-Hop — Warts and All

When dream hampton lived around the corner from the Notorious B.I.G in Brooklyn, when Gang Starr’s Guru would cut her hair, when she found herself in the epicenter of hip-hop’s modern genesis, she was a film student at New York University who just couldn’t afford to live in their Manhattan dorms. Yet, from there, the 19-year-old would become one of the foremothers of feminist critique in hip-hop as she split her time between leading an activist group that helped temper New York’s racist broken-windows policing, writing for seminal rap magazine The Source, and smoking “like 900 pounds of weed” with Biggie, who became one of her best friends.

After his murder in 1997 and over time, hampton (who doesn’t capitalize her name in the tradition of Black feminist cultural critic bell hooks) became disillusioned with hip-hop. Her now-adult daughter – who she asked B.I.G to godparent after the rapper convinced her not to have an abortion – doesn’t even listen to it. Yet, last June, as hampton tried to avoid the clamor of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary celebrations, she found two boxes of footage she had shot in the 1990s, some of it as she tried to make a documentary for school about The Source, before she pivoted to filming Biggie. The magazine’s leadership had boxed her out of important scenes and she ran the risk of failing the class. “He’s like, ‘Yo, ma, just come shoot me,’” she explains. “ I wish that I could say it was like, this intentional thing.”

She never graduated from NYU, but did go on to build a catalog of films about inequity, incarceration, and dire intercommunal conflict in Black America, including Surviving R. Kelly, the documentary on the disgraced R&B artist’s decades of sexual violence that is often credited for landing him in federal prison. Her latest film, It Was All a Dream, is almost nothing like it, save for its underlying ethos of pushing back against misogyny in hip-hop circles. 

Surviving R. Kelly was severe and pointed, featuring, hampton says, over 100 people talking directly to camera about Kelly’s crimes. It Was All a Dream is instead mostly clips of hampton as a fly on the wall (albeit a noisy one) with rap luminaries like Biggie, Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Lil’ Kim, lesser known women like Hurricane G, Leshaun, and Nikki D., the recently besmeared Diddy, controversial icon Dr. Dre and more musicians at the genre’s roots. It’s completely narrated by her reading portions of articles she wrote for The Source, Spin, The Village Voice, and Vibe between 1993 and 1999. It’s unlike almost any popular depiction of hip-hop before it.

“When I’ve made documentaries in the past like with Treasure, it was to help support her mom’s lawsuit against the police department who had set up [Treasure, a 19 year old trans woman] to do dangerous informant work. With R. Kelly, there was a generation of people I realized that didn’t remember the rape tape of ‘01, who weren’t taking the escalation in his behavior seriously. There are goals with that,” she says to me from Los Angeles, a week ahead of her new film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 9.

“With this project, it’s a vérité film. It’s this era that is just in ember. It’s at the beginning of something – we didn’t know what it would become. That’s kind of what the title is about. It’s not about “Juicy” or my name, it’s about the kind of hope that you have for your younger self; we were going to be these radical disruptors, we were going to be anti-respectability politics, all the things that we thought that we were setting out to do before you get subsumed and consumed by the system.”

She says it’s “a little depressing” to see the issues of sexism, racism, criminalization, and consumerism that the film captures then rage on today. Last November, popular early aughts R&B singer Cassie filed an explosive suit against Diddy, formally Sean Combs, who appears in the documentary when he was known as Puff and Puffy. As her former label head and longtime boyfriend, he raped, sex trafficked, and battered her, Cassie alleged. It led to a windfall of suits in a similar vein against him dating as far back as 1991. When news of Cassie’s suit hit, hampton said she called Combs.

“I hadn’t seen him in years. He’s not a friend. We knew each other 30 years ago. Twenty-five years ago, I was trying to write his book. That fell apart, but I reached out to him because I know that I’m someone that he’ll listen to. And I said, “Puff, I’m not trying to Olivia Pope you at all, [but] I think that you’re done and that it’s time to tap out.” She hadn’t seen him be abusive, but she believed Cassie. When she felt she hadn’t been clear enough in their conversation, she left him a voice note. “What you need to do, what we need…What we’ve needed really, since Mike Tyson raped Desiree Washington, is one of y’all motherfuckers to just say, ‘I did this. And I’m going to spend the rest of my life, and that includes financial restitution, trying to make this right.’” Diddy only admitted any wrongdoing when a video of him brutalizing Cassie was obtained by CNN, though his lawyer had previously denied her allegations as “offensive and outrageous.”

hampton says she was begging Combs to take accountability. “I was like, this is a Sisyphean struggle that women are involved in. The so-called Me Too movement, the rock is coming down. And this whole Johnny Depp, Russell Simmons, deny, deny, deny? That’s not even an option for you, Puff. Nobody is going to believe you. You’re loathed already. So you actually have an opportunity here to enter into a different paradigm.”

It Was All a Dream does not leave its stars without their warts, like a subtly disturbing scene that hints at the abuse Lil’ Kim said she suffered under Biggie. For hampton, these weren’t yet way-makers or deities, this was her community. When she shared the film with Jay-Z, another close friend, he seemed moved. “It’s weird for Jay to say it because he knows what it’s like to be famous, but I think he said, ‘You really showed them being human.’ And that doesn’t occur to me, because they are human.” Here, hampton discusses working with Biggie’s son as an executive producer on the film, the throughline between Dr. Dre assaulting a young journalist and Tory Lanez shooting Megan Thee Stallion, and cringing at her 22-year-old self.

There’s a moment where you’re talking to Richard Fulton, the late owner 5th Street Dick’s, an LA rap gathering spot, and he says of hip-hop, “50 years from now…The people who record it, that write about it, who distribute it, won’t be us.” It’s so crazy to hear that accurate prediction on the commercialization of hip-hop, how it left the streets and went to the C-suites. 
He’d seen it happen with jazz. When I let Jay-Z look at a copy, one of his notes was like, “Yo, I can’t believe that Richard said that. He was so prescient,” but you don’t have to be a prophet to have seen what happened with jazz. When I think about hip-hop, I often think about Motown. I grew up in Detroit and by the time I’m coming up in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s in its review stage. It’s like there’s a Motown Museum, Motown reviews. It could be the Temptations and only one member is in it. So it’s like seeing Method Man & Redman do Summer Jam and the audience is just like, “Whatever.” I didn’t grow up loving Motown. I loved hip-hop and so I look at hip-hop being in its museum phase. That’s not to be ageist and act like this generation doesn’t have its own contribution. I just tapped out a million years ago.

I’m really interested in you making, putting out, and publicizing this now when a publication like The Atlantic has written so much about this disillusionment you’ve had towards hip-hop since then. Even though It Was All a Dream is old footage, it throws you right back in the middle of the conversation.
I know, and at a time I didn’t anticipate it. Last June, Puff [facing several assault lawsuits] hadn’t happened. What that article [says] is that “I can’t stop trying to [fix hip-hop]”, but I think if you were to look at the evidence of say, my tweets, I’m tweeting way more about Palestine than I am about my own film, so I don’t know how much I’m publicizing it. Once the film premiere sold out, it didn’t make sense to be tweeting about it. When it gets sold, then there’ll be another round, I guess. But you’re right, it does put me right back in a conversation I kind of loathe.

How is that feeling for you?
I’m proud of the film and on its own merits, I love what we as a team collaborated and did. The reason I made Freshwater [on flooding in Detroit] after Surviving R. Kelly is ’cause I want to remind myself I’m an artist, but I also wanted to pull back from having a bunch of talking heads. It’s also evidence to me and anyone who’s paying attention that, yeah, I was a filmmaker then. I often find people saying [I’m a] “journalist turned filmmaker.” It’s because, whatever, people have their categorizations and no one’s really paying attention to anyone else. We’re all in our own worlds. But I never went to [journalism] school. And when I’m filming Snoop, I hadn’t even written my first major piece. My first major piece is Snoop.

What was your life like while you were in school at that time? You had these friendships and these professional relationships with these super influential and foundational artists, but also how else were you spending your time? What was it like doing this work and being a student?
First of all, they weren’t super influential then. They might have been foundational. I mean, when we’re at 5th Street Street Dick’s, I’m shooting Poetess and Jurassic 5. I don’t think most people know who Nikki D or Leshaun or Hurricane [G] are, you know? There was no guarantee that any of them were going to blow or even be foundational.

What was my life like back then? I mean, I never graduated from NYU because I was really distracted, and not like people think with hip-hop. But because we had formed the New York chapter of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, we were doing cop watches at 2 a.m. with the same equipment that I shot Big with. [Former mayor Rudy] Giuliani’s Jump Out Boys were out. We ended up successfully suing New York and NYPD to end stop and frisk; this was even before it was called stop and frisk.

On a trip to Cuba, Assata [Shakur] charged us with raising awareness about political prisoners. And so then we started doing Black August, which was a hip-hop concert, but it was a political education piece to raise funds for the defense campaigns of these former Black Liberation Army members. So, that was like the majority. I wasn’t someone who wrote a bunch of articles, like Danyel Smith. If Danyel wrote 20 articles in a year, I wrote two. If Touré wrote 15, I wrote one. You know what I’m saying?

This idea that you can be an artist-activist is kind of an untruth. They’re both eight-hour-day things. So when you’re running a campaign to free political prisoners, there’s not a whole bunch of space to do a bunch of films. In terms of the relationships I had, it’s not like my relationship with Biggie was more every day than my relationship with Monifa Bandele; we started MXGM together. In fact, we both lived around the corner from each other. And Biggie did our first fundraiser for Mutulu Shakur.

As you were doing all this activist work then, are you also investing in hip-hop storytelling because you see the crossover between the two? How do you navigate both of those things?
I’m also at the time reading about hooks, I’m a budding baby Black feminist, so these are places where I can try out some of these ideas. They matter to me. It is the conversation. Hip-hop is the way we are expressing ourselves in this generation, you know? But it’s not an either/or. 

The car ride [with Biggie, in the film] is kind of symbolic of so much of our lives. We’re on a ride, we’re on a journey. It’s not like we’re clear where this is going, where it’s going to end up. I remember talking to Big about [how] Puff wanted him to wear suits. And I was like, “I don’t want you to be Heavy D. I think you should just be Brooklyn.” And Biggie was like, “I would love to be as big as Heavy D.” There was this idea that Biggie had that maybe he could be as big as Heav.

I had Biggie’s son, CJ watch the footage, because obviously he died when CJ was an infant, and so he hadn’t really seen his dad outside of interviews. He became an EP on this project; [I’m] watching him connect with this vérité footage of his dad, where I’m not asking his dad a ton of questions, I’m not sitting him down to do a formal interview. I’m just an observer.

[Vérité] is this idea that you’re supposed to disappear, and as a Black woman who’s invested in this culture, that’s not an option for me. And the culture isn’t hip-hop, the culture is Black working class culture. And it’s not true that you can introduce a camera or a tape recorder into any space and it doesn’t change it. At the same time, we didn’t have camera phones, so we weren’t constantly documenting each other and ourselves, so someone like Snoop, you can see how shy he is. This is before he creates a caricature. It’s before he creates a persona.

What was it like having both CJ and your daughter work on the film with you? 
Well, my daughter is still working on the film with me. She just told me that she needs a nap, because we’re doing all these music clearances. My daughter is utterly uninterested in hip-hop. She is a K-pop person. This is her second production of mine that she’s worked on. I don’t know. She wouldn’t call it nepotism; she’s a linguist. She speaks Spanish and Korean and studied something called localization. So she’s looking for work, and I need someone to do a lot of this grunt work, and so that’s what she’s doing. 

Having CJ be a partner on this is so great. Getting to know him, which is a recent thing for me, I just think about how much his dad would’ve loved him and been proud of him. He’s so funny. He just reminds me of his dad in so many ways, and he’s thinking so critically about all of the things that are happening right now.

What were the most significant feelings that came up for you going while processing, editing, and developing this into a story?
There’s a golden kind of haze – again, this is back to the title – that we cast on memory. And I’ve been thinking about memory for my past couple of projects. Certainly, with Freshwater it was about memory and the role it plays. Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers, is also someone who’s obsessed with this idea of memory, where we file them, how we process them, what we project onto them. [With] Biggie kind of being deified, we are rewriting… Like, in our own memories, we override and we rewrite them, particularly when someone dies young. We just keep them in this one place. So memory, definitely looking back on that friendship, which was super important to me. Biggie talked me out of having an abortion. That’s why I asked him to be my daughter’s godfather, because I wasn’t married, I didn’t want to get married. I was 24. I didn’t think that I could have a kid. And he was like, “I’ve got your back.” You know? He was an actual friend.

He was someone that I was trying to challenge on things and someone who’s whole story I didn’t know; like after he died and Kim came out and said that she was abused by him, I believed her, and I didn’t witness it. Me and Biggie must have been in an everyday conversation for six or seven years, and because men compartmentalize, you still only see a part of them. 

But that’s only one part of it. I’m not friends with Method Man. I’m not friends with Snoop. I haven’t seen those people since I shot that. So then I’m looking at my attempts at being a journalist, being untrained in these spaces, trying to get real answers out of these men or women, trying to push people to think, failing at it myself, giggling, flirting. But then there are also times when I’m really proud. There are times when I’m hella cringy. I’m like, “Oh my God. Like, why did I drop that? Why didn’t I push harder in that moment?” But then I’m trying to have grace for a 23-year-old who was in this space, just trying to figure out how to make a film.

This is an old Black feminist conundrum. Like, we want to push men, but we don’t want to push them away. I don’t have that anymore. They could be out. Fuck them. I don’t have like, “I need you to know I love you,” or whatever. But that used to be the approach. And I mean, you see Black feminists all the time being like, “I am in this community. I love my men. I just want you to be better.” After decades of that, it’s clear that that love isn’t being returned.

I’m interested in that transition. I was having a conversation with two girlfriends of mine who are also Black women and culture writers, and we were just like, “If [Diddy] would’ve just got ahead of all of this and said ‘I did all this. I was terrible. I’m doing everything I can to make it right,’” there’s still the risk of losing the fame and influence, but it would matter. I saw you tweet something similar.
I know that when I left that voice note [to Diddy], I said, “We are in a litigious society.” So that if a police officer pulls you over and you’re like, “Oh, I’m so sorry I was speeding,” then when you go to court, you can’t fight that ticket because you apologized. The apology is an admission of guilt, which opens you up to all kinds of punishment. I’m not a carceral feminist. I wasn’t around R. Kelly. There was no way I imagined – having him having already gone through a trial – that he was going to end up in jail behind this documentary. It wasn’t possible to conceive.

I know people think like, “Oh, that must’ve been a goal.” How could it have been a goal? He had already gamed the system in ’08. There was no chance, I thought, he would somehow actually face consequences in our legal system. But anyway, when you talk about restorative justice, when you talk about transformative justice, our legal system is a huge impediment. At the same time, I know all kinds of violence interrupters – a mother will go visit a boy in jail who killed her son. So we have all kinds of people doing that kind of mediation work. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen with intergender violence, though. Quite frankly, we don’t have people in the hood who are committed to protecting Black women. So then we end up right back in the legal system. And this legal system makes it impossible. It has Puff now in this defense mode trying to save his life. When what he could be doing for the so-called culture is actually changing paradigms.

There is some Black feminist theorizing about asking for better of our men because we love them. And you’re like, fuck them now. I wonder how you arrived there?
How I arrived to a place of not caring whether they think I love them or not?

I mean, part of it is just weariness and age. I mean, when I was your age, I used to call women my age bitter. That was a common thing to say. But at the same time, what I came to realize is that we all arrive at the same space, particularly if there’s not going to be any growth on the other side. There’s a commitment to patriarchy in our community, and I wish I could say it’s just among men. There are a lot of women who put the P in patriarchy. When we think of a whole, healthy community, most of us think of it in Black capitalism terms. Success means a particular kind of Black capitalist success and family means this nuclear family led by [men]. I always say, we didn’t learn that bitches ain’t shit from the B side of Snoop’s’ of “Gin and Juice.” We learned it from the Book of Genesis.

One of the things that I think about too is that y’all were all so young. I love the line from your Jay-Z profile in 1998 that you recite in the film, where you describe “kamikaze capitalists who just happened to be teenagers.” I think in part of the deification of people like Biggie and Tupac, we lose the fact that y’all were all just coming out of adolescence.
I made a commitment to myself to not have my 50-year-old self preaching to my 23-year-old self. And I mean, I guess the hope there is that there’s some 23 or 22-year-old who is in similar spaces with boys, trying to push back or trying to figure it out. But the sadness, the thing that has broken me in some ways as a Black feminist, is the sameness of it.

I want problems worth having. And so often sexism, the kind of abuse that we get in relationship with these men isn’t a problem worth having. It doesn’t have to be physical or emotional. It could be this lyrical abuse. It could be another stray that Megan [Thee Stallion] has to catch, and we all have to witness it. I mean, even in the episode that I directed of [Netflix documentary on women in hip-hop] Ladies First, we talk about Dee Barnes [who Dr. Dre violently attacked in 1991], and then we go straight to Megan. And that’s an easy connection to make, but it also doesn’t feel good to make it, to be able to make it.

Perhaps I’m young and naive, but I think that even though there was so much misogyny and hate towards Megan, it feels like there’s still been progress. When I wrote her Rolling Stone cover story, I tell her that the in the online bubble that I live in, I mostly see people fighting in Megan’s defense. My algorithm knows that I love and believe her. Even though so many of these problems are cyclical, it feels like there’s a bit more support for women.
Well, see, the progress is that you have a community online where there feels like more of y’all than maybe it felt like [when there was] the three or four or five of us that were writing about it then. But even then, there were Black women who loved Black culture who were having these conversations. They just weren’t writers. They weren’t media makers. I often feel disappointed to not have these women on the record talking about misogyny, abuse, and patriarchy, but does that mean it didn’t happen? Of course it happened. It’s like before there was documentation of a thing, did it happen? Of course. Do we know how many slave revolts happened in the US? No. We’ll never know. Did we have a Black press? Was there a way to tell this story? So it’s a kind of hubris.

I remember when Twitter happened in particular, and I was like, disavowed of this idea that I just happened to belong to the smartest, Blackest, most radical, hilarious crew out. I was like, “Oh, it’s like a million of us.” Now in Megan’s world, is she hearing it when she goes on live? Is she protected by some Black feminist radical bubble that’s hilarious and has a meme for how trash these dudes are? No, people are in her Live calling her a liar, asking for evidence, other MCs have these throwaway strays, whether it’s Drake or Eminem.

And even when I have that life of like, “Oh, these are my hyper-intellectual friends,” it’s not like I don’t have family in Detroit who are not. The people that you were born into who also are transphobic. You’re going to find abuse in those circles, you’re going to find all kinds of levels of whether or not they believe Meg.

I think about when Megan announced her tour, I was like, “I wonder how this is going to sell. I know she’s really loved, but these are arenas.” And then you see from footage of these sold out shows and she’s so beloved there.
But by the way, that’s going to happen with Drake too. The thing about music is that we’ll be having these conversations – and this is definitely true about being a culture writer, so you have the conversation and you’re involved in the important work of criticism, which to me is an engagement to interrogate, to historicize, to give context – but then the majority of us just want to “Step in the Name of Love.” Capitalism keeps you concerned with survival and the everydayness of life, of trying to get through your day. And so those of us who decide that we want to live a life where we are foregrounding ideas and critical engagement, that’s a particular kind of commitment, and it is not one that most people opt in on.

What are you working on next after this?
[hampton smiles] bell hooks.

You’re working on a bell hooks film? Lovely. How far is it in progress?
I’m in research and development. I don’t know what it’s going to be. It was supposed to be a documentary, but I just went down and looked at her letters and was heartbroken that so many of them are about her first abusive relationship that lasted for 15 years.

When I was watching it, I couldn’t quite make out what Big was saying to Lil’ Kim aggressively before she goes on stage, but in the bits that you see of her in your film, she’s quiet and reserved, and then she explodes as a performer. I’m curious about what your observations of Kim were like around that time.
I’m surprised that I kept the camera rolling at that moment. Again, this is about memory and time. I don’t remember that conversation. When I looked at that footage, I was like, “Wait, what’s happening here?” Same with you, I couldn’t make it out. Then I remembered, “Oh, he’s talking to her about not having lipstick on or makeup on when she goes in and out of the venues.” And he was like, “You don’t think there’ll be a photographer out there?” He’s doing his mentoring thing. But it also feels like, oh, this is evidence of possible violence in their relationship when he picks a the chair and slams it down. 

Again, men compartmentalize. Kim lived in the same neighborhood that we both lived in. I knew that they were friends and at one point I knew that they were lovers, but [we weren’t]. We all have different lives, and not being Biggie’s lover, that’s not who I got to know. I took him to see films at NYU with me. We talked about Ntozake Shange or Dickens or whatever. As a filmmaker in that moment, I’m proud that I have the camera on. I kept it in there because I don’t want to protect anyone. I don’t want to protect Biggie. I didn’t feel like I was exploiting Kim because there’s no actual violence in that moment. It just felt controlling.


Even that moment [that we’re] talking about with Biggie, it also makes him human. I don’t know who he would’ve grown to be. I’ve seen so much change in some of the men that I’ve known for 30 years, and then I’ve seen some not change at all.

What do you think has been most underrepresented about men like Biggie, Method Man, and Snoop in their deification?
I am not hoping to present any message about them. I’m just presenting a moment in time. Snoop is actually shy. He’s not trying to sell you a garlic press or pool cleaning equipment or a car battery or whatever he’s doing now [in my film]. You know what I’m saying? He’s shy. He’s trying to figure out who he’s going to be, what his politics are. Meth, the same thing. So the question around deification, I don’t think that they’ve been deified unless you’re talking about Pac or Biggie, and even that I think is less so now, because there’s a new generation that hopefully is asking different questions about celebrities.

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